14th Council of Europe Conference of Ministers responsible for Sport. Sport in a “post-trust” world. Closing speech

Budapest , 

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Sport and the wider trust crisis

A few weeks ago, the Oxford Dictionaries caused a buzz when it declared ‘post-truth’ the International Word of the Year.

It describes public debates in which objective facts are less influential than appeals to emotion.

A phenomenon becoming all too commonplace.

I wonder, however, if our societies are not only entering a post-truth era, but if we are in danger of entering a post-trust era too.

Over the last decade, across Europe and in many parts of the world, our social institutions have haemorrhaged public trust.

In our political systems:

The average voter is rarely shocked by revelations of bad behaviour among their politicians.

Organisations like Wikileaks have laid bare countless state secrets, revealing the often grubby workings of power.

In our economies:

The once trusted banks let people down spectacularly.

Reckless traders and sleeping regulators helped bring Europe’s financial system to its knees.

And millions have paid the price.

In our media:

Murky relationships between proprietors and editors on one hand, and political elites on the other, are readily accepted as normal.

So much reporting has a hidden agenda; opinion is regularly presented as fact – and people know it.

And, in sport too, controversy and cheating are no longer a surprise.

On the contrary, the acts of a dishonest minority have cast a long shadow over the decency of the rest of the sporting world.

Why am I comparing sport to these other fallen social institutions?  

Because I believe that sport is now embroiled in a much wider trust crisis in our societies. 

And, in my view, this wider trust crisis is compounding the frustration and disappointment we see in so many of our communities.

The anti-establishment, anti-institutional, anti-elite mood.

Restoring the integrity of sport is therefore not just about sport.

It is, I believe, part of a wider mission to rebuild citizens’ consent for their discredited social institutions.

Because this is the social contract on which stable democracies depend.

The danger of introspection

Reform in sport, as you all know, is not straightforward.

As the Council of Europe has become more active in this space, we have learnt a great deal from the organisations and people in this room.

Today has been no exception.

We never fail to be humbled by the commitment of the movement to its athletes and fans.

We never pretend to know more about national realities than our government representatives.

And you know, as well as I do – something I learned from my many years in politics – that we desperately need to keep up momentum. 

We have a window of opportunity for change: overall, public opinion is still on our side.

But these windows do not stay open forever.

And whenever institutional reform is on the table, it is too easy for self-reflection to become introspection.

Spending too long talking to ourselves, about ourselves, while momentum slips away.

It is a trap we must avoid.

And I would therefore like to pay tribute to all those today who have emphasised the need for action, and the need for unity.

You could not be more right.

Important steps have already been taken.

And it seems clear from today’s discussions that there are three key areas where we need to move now, and move together.

Settling the anti-doping landscape

Number one: the anti-doping landscape must be settled.

It is not for the Council of Europe to set out the appropriate division of labour.

But we do know, from our work to strengthen the democratic systems of our member states that the anti-doping movement will be best served by a clear and transparent division of responsibilities in which we see real independence of the various actors, preventing conflicts of interest.

WADA, the world’s only doping watchdog, must be able to do its job.

We support the recent steps taken to equip WADA for the future, including in clarifying and strengthening its response to non-compliance.

And we will continue to work in close partnership with the organisation through the MOU being signed today.

We also place great importance on our long-standing and constructive relationship with the sports world in combating doping – in particular the IOC and athletes’ representatives. 

We all need to stand together for our common objective – clean sport. 

The Council of Europe must also, of course, look at how we can improve.

I very much take the point which has been raised that our anti-doping treaty was drafted in 1989, and there have been many significant developments since.

How do we reflect these? It is a challenge we will now take back to Strasbourg, considering carefully what should be done.

Common standards

Number two: we need a more decisive and visible shift to common, legal standards.

I am not here as a treaty salesman.

I don’t advocate Council of Europe Conventions for the sake of it.

I do it because a shared legal framework is the only way to close the loopholes exploited by criminals, and the best way to enable co-operation.

I am delighted that today we are receiving a number of new treaty signatures.

I am frequently told that our Macolin Convention is the leading global instrument in preventing match-fixing.

Our new Convention on Safety, Security and Service at Football Matches has also been well-received – it is the first ever international treaty dedicated to fans.

This praise and support is appreciated.

But what we need is ratifications.

Changes to the law.

And here I am speaking directly to Ministers: it is entirely in your gift.

I would also like to make a specific appeal to our partners in the EU:

Overcome the obstacles which remain to ratifying the match-fixing convention.

Your accession, individually and as a bloc, would send a very powerful message indeed.

Good governance

Number three – and this is the key to the rest. Urgent progress is needed on good governance.

The sports world is protective of its autonomy.

And rightly so: the last thing anyone should want is heavy-handed state interference.

But the best way to preserve that autonomy long into the future, is by gripping the governance challenge today working together with national authorities and implementing the principles which modern citizens have come to expect from their big social institutions:

Transparency; accountability; checks and balances; a proper separation of powers.

With separation of powers, I mean the clear separation of the three fundamental branches of governing: - the executive, - the judicial and - the legislative. This principle of checks and balance applies across the board – for the international federations and bodies governing sports, as well as all of the relevant national authorities.

Much work has already been done on what good governance in sport should look like. 

We don’t need a brand new set of principles – plenty already exist.

But we do urgently need governments and sports organisations to recognise one common benchmark.

The Council of Europe will continue to act as a facilitator, helping build this vital consensus.

The idea of setting up an International Sport Integrity Partnership to help drive this work – endorsed at a corruption summit in the UK in May – is also welcome.

Providing, of course, that it is a proper partnership.

And I hope that EPAS will continue to share national best practice.

We need reform at every level.

That means all state authorities getting their own houses in order – and we stand ready to assist any of our member states.

You know that we are working with the Russian Federation on reviewing and reforming its anti-doping system.

And we want to work as closely as possible with our partners outside of Europe too. We are well aware that this is a global fight.

If we can show swift progress on these fronts getting the anti-doping landscape sorted getting robust new laws in place and turning words on governance into action we’ll do something which doesn’t happen enough these days:

We’ll give people reason to have faith.

By coming together, by putting differences aside, by delivering on the promises which have been made we will confound the cynicism that creeps across our societies.

In these sceptical days we live in, this is a very great prize.

I hope that I have been premature in floating the idea of a post-trust world.

The trust crisis is wide, but it is far from irreversible.

And I am confident that sport can emerge even stronger from these troubles.

Many people out there, despite what they have read or heard, love sport.

They love their teams.

They love their tournaments.

They are willing us to get this right.

It is a great privilege to work with all of you to honour their goodwill.